Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 17

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files Vol. 17 (Rebellion, 2011).

I put off purchasing this book, and writing about it, for just about as long as humanly possible, I guess. My heart sank when it showed up in my bag at Bizarro Wuxtry. For those of you who've been reading regularly, and reading between the lines, you might have gleaned that my comic book purchases have come grinding to a halt, with only the digital copies of 2000 AD surviving, and none, sadly, of the trades that I wish that I could afford. Babies and doctors cost a lot of money; I am not earning enough anymore to justify a hobby that Marie and I really don't share. And so, very sadly, after almost twenty years, I closed out my bag at America's finest comic shop. Each visit over the last several months, I cobbled the cash to get a few last things from it. The last to go was the last thing that I wanted, the umpteenth reprint of a monumentally flawed Judge Dredd epic called "Judgment Day."

In what has to be the weirdest coincidence ever, in a life just full of them -- ask me about the Randolph / Quitman / Glascock County "Where's George" incident sometime -- the very first thing that I ordered as a subscriber at Bizarro Wuxtry was 2000 AD in the summer of 1992. "Judgment Day" was running then as a new serial, alongside the fourth "phase" of Zenith and the first Button Man and, erm, Kola Kommandos. Twenty years later, I closed out my bag with the story's collection in the seventeenth volume of The Complete Case Files. It is not a story that has aged well.

"Judgment Day" takes up about half the book. It's a story that wants to be tense, but it never rises above the simplistic concept of "Judge Dredd Versus Zombies." The villain of the piece, Sabbat, is a goofy one-note bore, sort of the ultimate example of everything that was wrong about Judge Death's slide into black comedy. There's no sense of scale or escalation to Garth Ennis's script. We're just told that things are bleak, instantly, and then they're just comically overdone. Having a zombie invasion on Mega-City One's west wall sure sounds bad, but Mega-City One is something like two hundred miles across in most places, with thousands of tower blocks that stretch up hundreds of floors. I don't care how many bad guys you've got outside, it's not an invasion that's going to destroy the city overnight, no matter how many times Ennis insists otherwise.

At its worst, and this book repeatedly shows Ennis at his most simplistic, and, one can easily argue, worst, this reads like proto-Mark Millar. It's all about tough people hitting each other really hard. At one point, Chief Judge McGruder shows up with the biggest machine gun that anybody's ever drawn and shouts, if memory serves, "Eat hot drokking lead, you worthless bags of vomit!" I swear, it's possible to write to 2000 AD's core of ten year-old boys without making everybody else in the audience cringe. Not, sadly, the way that Ennis does it.

Put another way, this is the story that finally devotes an episode to having Judge Dredd and Johnny Alpha go at each other with fisticuffs. This is a story that features both characters' visual creator, Carlos Ezquerra, among several on art chores, and this key moment is drawn by... somebody else.

It's not all this dire. I like the silly "Almighty Dredd" in spite of Ian Gibson phoning in the artwork. There's a bit in the middle where a young judge tries making a gag at Dredd's expense, only to get a chin and a scowl in the face, and the wise advise from one of his fellows: "Back in the day, we called that Long Walk Talk, son. You best watch yourself." That still makes me laugh. And there's a bit that Sean Phillips illustrated, beautifully, in which the judges have a masked vigilante in custody. He and his bunch of Cursed Earth cultists have based their society on old Lone Ranger comics, and the judges let him keep his mask on. That's so silly that it works.

But these are hiccups, and not much more. The honest truth is that in 1992, Judge Dredd, as a weekly strip in 2000 AD, had been spinning wheels for a couple of years and it was at this point that it fell off a cliff. Ennis at least has some enthusiasm for the character, even if his abilities are not able to match it. Things are bad at this point, but they got a lot worse from 1993-95, when Millar, Grant Morrison, and whoever was using the "Sonny Steelgrave" pseudonym from one week to the next started crapping out stories. In the twice-monthly Judge Dredd Megazine, John Wagner was still scripting some high-quality material - the first two "Mechanismo" stories appear in Case Files 18 - but it's overwhelmed by such awful material in the weekly. Things certainly improved in '95 in a big way - anybody who doesn't think that Judge Dredd has been one of the best strips in comics for the last dozen-plus years is either ignorant or in denial - but man, the early nineties were rough.

Rebellion's issuing a lot of books that I would love to own and love to write about (Ampney Crucis! Black Hawk! Mazeworld! Psi Files 2!) and I hope that one day soon I will. I really doubt that I'll go back and get books 18, 19 and probably 20 in this series, though. Having every prog and megazine, I already have more than my fill of lousy Dredd stories, and the limp, macho grind of Book 17 is bad enough. Not even recommended for completists, frankly.

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